World-renowned and beloved bluesman B.B. King has died at the age of 89.
According to the his attorney, Brett Bryson, King died peacefully in his sleep at his Las Vegas home on Thursday, May 15 at about 9:40 p.m. PDT.
King, a 15-time Grammy winner, suffered from diabetes and had been dealing with declining health recently. Last year at a Chicago concert he collapsed on stage, though he later issued a statement to fans blaming the scare on dehydration and exhaustion. He’d also recently been in controversial hospice care at his Las Vegas home.
The man who would go on to earn the nickname “King of the Blues” was born Riley B. King on a tenant farm near Itta Bena, Mississippi, on Sept. 16, 1925. His parents separated when he was very young and his mother died soon after leaving him to be cared for by his grandmother. He found work as a sharecropper while still a child and went to school when he couldn’t work.
“I was a regular hand when I was 7. I picked cotton. I drove tractors. Children grew up not thinking that this is what they must do. We thought this was the thing to do to help your family,” King said of his childhood.
After dropping out of school in the 10th grade, King’s musical career began with a gospel quartet in Mississippi, but he soon moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he landed a job as a disc jockey at WDIA. The DJ gig would give him access to various music from all over the country. He studied the great blues and jazz guitarists of the day like Django Reinhardt and T-Bone Walker, and would play a few minutes of live music each day as the “Beale Street Blues Boy,” a moniker he would later shorten to B.B.
Slowly but surely building a following, King would score his first R&B hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” in 1951. White audiences soon discovered the bluesman and by the end of the ’60s he would appear at the famed Newport Folk Festival and open for the Rolling Stones.
Over the years King, along with his famed Gibson guitar known as “Lucille,” would work at a breakneck pace recording hits such as his 1971 classic “The Thrill Is Gone” and touring nonstop. Until the 1990s, King was known to be on the road at least 300 nights of the year. The excessive touring eventually led to him developing a unique call-and-response performance style that went over well with audiences as most nights King disliked singing and playing at the same time.
“Sometimes I just think that there are more things to be said, to make the audience understand what I’m trying to do more,” King told The Associated Press in 2006. “When I’m singing, I don’t want you to just hear the melody. I want you to relive the story, because most of the songs have pretty good storytelling.”
In 1984, King was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame soon to follow in 1987. 1990 saw him receive the Songwriters Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award and he would go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush as well. King was also invited to hold court with Pope John Paul II and would give the Pontiff one of his signature guitars. In 2012, he was invited to the White House Blues Festival and coaxed President Obama to sing along to his hit “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Smokey Robinson who has known and called King a friend for over 50 years has high praise for King.
“The world has physically lost not only one of the greatest musical people ever, but one of the greatest people ever. Enjoy your eternity,” Robinson said somberly..
King is survived by 11 of his 15 children.